Spin and ideology are no substitute for good policy

The tax-cutters have a big microphone now but amplified volume does not substitute for good content.

Basic RGBBrace yourselves for public policy backed by nothing but spin and ideology in Iowa. A good example: tax policy.

Senator Bill Dix, who will be the new majority leader in the Iowa Senate with a comfortable nine or potentially 10-vote edge, offers a strident approach for the coming legislative session in this story by veteran Statehouse reporter Rod Boshart:

“The states that are growing the fastest today are the ones that have recognized that economic policy and tax policy makes a big difference,” he said. “High income tax punishes people who want to work, save and make investments in our state. We need to recognize that. States that have grown the fastest the last couple of decades across our country today are the ones that have either lowered their rates, broadened their base and kept things simple or moved to no income tax at all.”

The tax cutters have a big microphone now but amplified volume does not substitute for good content. Research is clear. So are the facts, and Senator Dix is missing them.

On IPP’s GradingStates.org website, Peter Fisher sorts out the fact from fiction with so-called “business climate” rankings that are certifiably unreliable. But they get a lot of attention from legislators who want something to back their ideological approach to policy.

Senator Dix is one of three Iowa state chairs for the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which peddles much of the nonsense about tax cuts promoting economic growth.

Notes Fisher about the ALEC analysis, “when we can compare states ranked the best by ALEC with states ranked the worst, it turns out that ALEC’s 20 ‘best’ states have lower per capita income, lower median family income, and a lower median annual wage than the 20 ‘worst’ states. ALEC’s ‘best’ states also have higher poverty rates: 15.4 percent on average from 2007 through 2014, vs. 13.8 percent in the ‘worst’ states. The states favored by ALEC include the likes of Utah, North Dakota, and North Carolina, whereas ALEC’s ‘worst’ states include New York, California, and Vermont.”

Even if the prescriptions for lower taxes, etc. were right, they would not apply in Iowa. Our state has repeatedly been shown to be average or below average by any measure on taxes paid. In fact, few states can get below Iowa on corporate taxes, something the business lobby will not admit. So we start the legislative session with competitiveness not an issue for Iowa except in the minds of well-placed lobbyists and certain legislators.

And another angle not on their agenda: accountability on the large number of tax breaks already in Iowa law — something the Cedar Rapids Gazette noted today in an excellent editorial:

Over the years, lawmakers from both parties have given away tax exemptions, deductions and credits to an array of special interests lobbying for a break. Individually, the cuts look small. Added together, they have a significant budgetary impact.

They’re sold as an economic boost, but there’s rarely any follow up to find out if the tax cuts actually delivered on those promises.

And the real path to growth — the path lined with investments in human capital and public infrastructure? We’ll see how many of those demonstrated, positive approaches to prosperity even get a hearing in 2017.

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director, Iowa Policy Project

Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

An opportunity for a productive, fair agenda

A good place for the new governor to start is establishing transparency and accountability with reforms of tax credits and other tax expenditures.

Congratulations to Governor Terry Branstad on his nomination as ambassador to China and to Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds for her coming role as Governor of our state.

This is a tremendous opportunity for the new Governor to start marking her clean slate with a productive and fair agenda that advances opportunity for children and families, protects the vulnerable and enhances our quality-of-life assets of clean air, clean water, and cultural enrichment.

A good place to start is establishing a new regime of transparency and accountability in state spending with a reform agenda for tax credits and other tax expenditures — something she may embrace as a former county treasurer. Important decisions are being made in the shadows in the Iowa State Capitol. Our incoming Governor has an opportunity to bring them out into the open.

With this type of reform, we may find there are in fact adequate revenues to again cultivate Iowans’ long-held commitments to education, to our safety net, to our environment, and to fairness and safety in the workplace.

At the Iowa Policy Project, we welcome inquiries from the new Governor and her staff about our research. May they — like Iowans around the state — find it to be a credible and reliable resource to better understand our public policy choices.

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Iowa can win the race to the bottom

However fascinating this experiment may be, make no mistake: People will be hurt.

Basic RGBIn the race to the bottom, all signs indicate that Iowa can beat the competition.

Yes, Iowa has a chance to shed hard-fought achievements toward respect for working families and compassion for the vulnerable. The coming two years will be fascinating if for no reason other than to see how much further we can fall behind, on wages and income, workplace protection, work supports such as child care and health care, and protection and enhancement of our land, air and water.

But however fascinating a low-road experiment may be, make no mistake: People will be hurt. These are Iowans. They are young people who could be our future if we were to invest properly in them. They are middle-aged parents struggling to support families. They are seniors who watch with trepidation as national political games are played with Social Security and Medicare, and as state politicians claim their earned, negotiated pensions are excessive.

The coming threat is to our civic fabric of public education. It is a threat to a safety net that protects individuals and can advance them toward their dreams.

An exaggeration, you say? Have you examined the policy goals of ALEC, the shadowy American Legislative Exchange Council, in which Iowa’s new legislative leadership are entrenched leaders? We at IPP have looked at ALEC. Its agenda is a recipe for fiscal instability and economic stagnation.

ALEC promotes tax cuts and tax structures that benefit the wealthy and corporations, even more than they do now. ALEC would erase already inadequate regulations of private industry that protect workers, communities, and public health.

Iowans, are you hoping for sustainable funding for public schools? A meaningful minimum wage increase? Regulation of polluters, or of unscrupulous employers who steal wages? Are you kidding?

These need to be our priorities. They are not the coming agenda.

The lobby of the Iowa State Capitol is littered with promises that remain unfulfilled. Special-interest forces have successfully put tax breaks and corporate welfare ahead of traditional, responsible approaches to a public infrastructure that serves all Iowans, not just the well-heeled and well-positioned few.

These forces have emerged from an era of divided government, and now they threaten to run the table. The 2017 race to the bottom already has begun. Do we really want to win it?

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Tying science to policy — for Iowa

Iowans can do better for the environment and should.

160915-59170_dox35x45The Iowa Policy Project has always enlisted the help of students and professors or former professors from Iowa colleges to help produce good research.

IPP founder and researcher David Osterberg, left, in his job as a professor of Public Health at the UI, has been part of the annual statement on climate change signed by researchers and teachers at all the colleges and universities in Iowa.

This year’s statement, released today with 187 signers from 39 Iowa colleges and universities, is about farming to sequester carbon and improve water quality: The Multiple Benefits of Climate-Smart Agriculture.

An excerpt:

Farmers and land managers who have implemented proven conservation practices have positioned Iowa to lead implementation of Climate‐Smart Agriculture. Iowa’s leadership through wider adoption of conservation practices will benefit our state, while these practices lessen human contribution to net greenhouse gas emissions. …

We, as Iowa educators, believe Iowa should play a leadership role in this vital effort, just as our state has already done for wind energy.

Find the full statement here.

Find the news release here.

The statement envisions “a multi‐faceted vision for land stewardship by vigorously implementing federal, state, and other conservation programs” to generate a more diverse landscape. It concludes:

Such a landscape would benefit all Iowans by transforming Iowa’s vast croplands into resources that simultaneously generate food, feed, fuel, a healthier climate, better soils, wildlife habitat, and cleaner waters.

The lead authors are Chris Anderson, who has served as assistant director of Iowa State University’s climate science program, and Jerry Schnoor, co-director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, with editorial assistance from senior science writer Connie Mutel of the UI.

Also contributing were: Gene Takle, Diane Debinski and David Swenson, ISU; David Courard-Hauri, Drake; Neil Bernstein, Mount Mercy; Peter Thorne, Greg Carmichael, Elizabeth Stone and David Osterberg, UI; and Kamyar Enshayan, University of Northern Iowa.

The issues raised in this statement fit well with our work at the Iowa Policy Project. We produce papers on water quality and confined animal agriculture, and connect these issues to public policy impacts. What we do at this small policy institute fits into larger questions addressed by academics and policy people in the state.

Iowans can do better for the environment and should.

Solar power shines when most needed

Distributed solar is good for the environment because the electricity produced is clean. It also is likely to come just when it is needed. Let’s make sure we have the policies in place to encourage more solar.

By David Osterberg and Nathaniel Baer

The hot sun we experienced this August not only caused the local electric grid to experience high use, but it also powered solar systems distributed around Eastern Iowa.

The middle of a hot summer day is a time when almost any U.S. electric utility expects to see highest demands during the year. Aug. 11 was going to be one of those days in Eastern Iowa. Peak demands of high electricity use translate to high costs.

So, a day in advance, MidAmerican Energy asked the University of Iowa’s Facilities Management team to cut back the university’s electric load from 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Aug. 11, 2016.

The university has an arrangement with the electric utility to decrease its electric load by cutting back on air conditioning and other usage, when called upon, in exchange for a reduced electric rate. The goal is to reduce costs for all utility customers by encouraging some customers to reduce their electricity use at the highest and most expensive times.

This type of arrangement is a win-win not only for UI and MidAmerican, but also other MidAmerican customers. Utilities often make these arrangements available to large customers as well as residential customers with air conditioning.

The university has two small solar energy systems that produce electricity. The data for one of them, a 38-kilowatt solar array, showed energy production varying during the morning of Aug. 11 (below). During the utility’s predicted peak period of energy use, the solar array’s production rose quickly and continued to be strong for the remaining period.

Basic RGB

Similarly, the solar arrays at Johnson County’s Secondary Roads and SEATS campus began producing much higher levels of solar energy shortly after the 12:30 p.m. high-use period started. These panels also continued with strong production through 5 p.m., when the period ended. (below)

160822-solar-timeofday

The hot sun caused the MidAmerican system to experience a peak day but also powered distributed solar systems in the area to help meet those higher energy needs.

Distributed solar is good for the environment because the electricity produced is clean. It also is likely to come just when it is needed. Let’s make sure we have the policies in place to encourage more solar.

2016-osterberg_5464David Osterberg is an energy and environment researcher at the Iowa Policy Project. dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANathaniel Baer is the energy program director at the Iowa Environmental Council. baer@iaenvironment.org.

 

A version of this column ran in the Sept. 6 Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Spreading a friend’s message

“At 93 I am nearing the end of my life on this planet. As a parting message, I want to encourage you in the strongest terms to use your influence to make distributed solar energy a major source of electricity. … Please use your influence.” — Don Laughlin, in his letter to Warren Buffett

I visited an old friend, Don Laughlin, in a nursing home before he died. A stroke had paralyzed half of his body but certainly had not affected his mind. Even with his impending death he was looking toward the future as he spoke with Nathan Shepherd of IPP and me.

Our conversation was about renewable energy, which he had promoted for decades. He told us that one of his many unfinished projects was a letter to Warren Buffett, the owner of MidAmerican Energy, to ask him to be more supportive of rooftop solar power. Nathan suggested to Don that he dictate a letter and that we would send it to the billionaire. And we did.

160810-CLIP-dmr-openletterBut we realized that with probably hundreds of letters every day, Warren Buffett might never hear of Don’s letter. We spoke with the Des Moines Register’s opinion editor, who loved the idea of publishing Don’s letter as an open letter to Buffett. So, two days after we spoke to Don, a third of the Register’s op-ed page was Don’s letter, an introduction by Nathan and me, and a huge picture of solar panels. (Click on image.)

Within several days, Don Laughlin would be gone at the age of 93.

At a celebration of Don’s life at Scattergood School near West Branch August 27, my neighbor Deborah Dakin suggested that while she was sure Don was happy to do one last act to encourage solar power and reduce the effect of climate change, more could be done.

Basic RGBShe suggested that everyone who reads this write to Warren Buffett to ask him to pull his company back from efforts to reduce the return to homeowners from their own rooftop solar. That is because MidAmerican is trying to kill net metering, the ability of a homeowner or business to receive retail rates for any excess electricity they generate beyond their own usage.

Your letter would honor Don Laughlin’s last public activity, and, if it succeeds, each of us will be doing our part to stave off the worse and worst effects of climate change.

IPP-osterberg-75David Osterberg, Co-Founder and Environmental Researcher, IPP

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

To fund water solutions, why not the obvious? Tax pollutants

Why not the obvious solution? Tax the chemicals that pollute Iowa waters.

Note: A version of this piece ran as a guest opinion in the Sunday, March 6, 2016, Cedar Rapids Gazette.

———

One answer to the issue of funding water-quality solutions is right in front of us: Tax the pollutants.

The pollutants are Nitrogen (N) and Phosphorus (P). This is well established by the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) that Governor Terry Branstad and the farm industry support. The NRS blames N and P for the pollution that harms Iowa waters and causes the hypoxic or dead zone at the bottom of the Mississippi River.

More than 90 percent of N and two-thirds of the P come from non-point sources, almost all agriculture, according to Iowa State University.

And there is a lot of it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture, for 2012, shows about $2.6 billion was spent on “commercial fertilizer, lime and soil conditioners” in that year in Iowa.

Yet, while debate proceeds on how to deal with the pollution caused by those chemicals, it is worth noting that normal Iowa sales tax does not apply to the N or P used in agriculture.

I stopped by my local hardware store to ask if I, a non-farmer, would pay tax on the standard Scotts 10-10-10 garden fertilizer they sell. I would. But farmers do not pay sales tax for theirs. (There is a small fee on chemicals, including N and P for groundwater protection programs, but no general sales tax.)

Since the debate about how to pay for cleaning our waters is in full swing it is time to propose the obvious. Since N and P are the culprits, let’s tax them at the same rate as, say, pickup trucks.

Farmers pay a 5 percent tax on the pickups they use on the farm and off, to pay for their impact on the roads we all use. Since their fertilizer is used on the farm but also flows into the rivers and streams and lakes we all use, costing us all, a similar tax on fertilizer makes sense.

A 5 percent tax on the $2.6 billion in annual farm fertilizer sales in Iowa would bring in roughly $129 million a year, close to the numbers being thrown about to address water quality in the state. It is roughly comparable to what would come from three-eighths of a cent on the general sales tax for the Natural Resource and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund that Iowa taxpayers approved — but which legislators have refused to fund. Over the next 30 years the fertilizer fee would bring in something close to what the Governor wants to take from a tax designed for school infrastructure.

Why not the obvious solution? Tax the chemicals that pollute Iowa waters.

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg

David Osterberg co-founded the Iowa Policy Project in 2001 and was director of the organization for 12 years. He continues to lead IPP research on environmental and energy policy for IPP and is a professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa. He served six terms as a member of the Iowa House of Representatives, and served as chair of the House Agriculture Committee. Contact: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org.